Courageous Leadership

Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” highlighted a four-month period at the end of the Civil War in 1865 that is instructive for leaders facing a new year’s opportunities and challenges.

The United States’ sixteenth president had declared that he hated the “zeal” for slavery’s expansion. “I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself,” Lincoln said, and “I hate it because it . . . enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity.”1 Lincoln correctly calculated the task before him, and described the Emancipation Proclamation as “the central act of his administration.” His courageous leadership to end slavery was a pivotal event in American history.

Political Risk

However, during the struggle he took an enormous political risk when the outcome was far from certain. Allen Guelzo, Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College, explained that Lincoln took a financial gamble in the battle for justice. The price of abolishing the “retrograde institution” of slavery would be very high. Lincoln’s proclamation wiped out $3.5 billion of “investment” in slaves, at a time when the entire wealth of the nation amounted to only $16 billion.2

Imagine any modern-day president proposing legislation that erases nearly 25% of the country’s gross national product!

Lincoln’s kind of leadership can only be explained by a long view. He deeply believed that giving freedom to slaves ultimately assured freedom for the free. He intuited that undue focus on short-term goals don’t result in great leadership. Sadly, he was assassinated by one who opposed his long-view dream of succeeding generations of Americans for whom the freedom of slaves would unify and fortify them against oppression.

Condoleeza Rice wrote,

Today’s headlines and history’s judgments are rarely the same. If you are too attentive to the former, you will most certainly not do the hard work of securing the latter.”

A sober reminder that leadership in 2016 is a noble calling to secure tomorrow for future generations.

1 Speech at Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854 . Recorded in, Illinois Journal, October 1854.

2 Guelzo, A. (2004). Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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